It’s no secret that running has been a struggle for me since becoming injured 11 months ago. To this day, my spinal injuries have yet to be fully diagnosed. Xrays show compression fractures to T-10, T-11, and T-12, as well as, a probable traumatic lower lumbar spondylolisthesis. We are awaiting the full diagnostic report on an MRI that is to be taken next week. In the process of trying to heal while still remaining active, I have re-discovered a lot of very simple truths.
First and foremost: YOU DO NOT NEED TO BE EXTREME – JUST CONSISTENT.
This applies to practically everything, but especially exercise. Twice per week, I show up at FitBody BootCamp and do what I can. Sure, I have to modify a lot. I don’t lift nearly as heavy on the weights as the majority of their other clients do, and I focus more on maintaining good form than I do on maxing out reps or going for multiple speed rounds. But this is what works for me. This is how I am able to keep going and not injure myself further.
Four days per week, I run. A year ago, that would have meant any number of things – easy runs, tempo runs, speed intervals, long slow distance… but always 100% running with little to no walk breaks. Now? Well, it is what it is – and even I don’t know what it is or what it will be until I lace up my shoes and take a few steps. Nowadays, I always start out walking… then I test my back out with a slow paced run. Some days it’s good and I can run for several miles. Some days it’s not so good and I am humbled back down to a walk. Some days I can go fast and it feels better that way – other days, 10:00 – 10:30/mile is the best that I can do. I’ve learned to include regular walk breaks in order to reassess and readjust my running form, even if I don’t feel like I need them. I’ve learned (the hard way!) how vital these little checks and balances are for me now… because what’s the point of one “good” run, if it takes my body an entire week to recover from it?
Needless to say, my physical training for the half marathon in Pittsburgh this year has been much less intense than previous years. Mentally, however, I did not need to prepare myself at all. I’d made up my mind that this was something I was going to do and it didn’t matter what kind of day I was having – good or bad, for better or worse, I was going to run this course. So I did – and I give all the credit for my positive experience to the fact that, day in and day out, I have remained CONSISTENT. I may not be able to do everything that I want to do, or in the way in which I would like to do it – but that will never stop me from doing all the things that I CAN do in the meantime.
Another major factor in my positive Pittsburgh half marathon experience this year has to do with CLEAN EATING HABITS.
John L. Parker Jr. once wrote that “if the furnace was hot enough, anything would burn – even Big Macs.” – meaning that distance runners could, if they ran enough, eat pretty much whatever they wanted and still stay healthy and lean. But this really isn’t the case at all. The truth is, you simply can not outrun a bad diet. Your body does not lie, and poor nutrition will always show – perhaps not always in your physical appearance, but most certainly in the way that your body physically functions and athletically performs.
Since becoming injured, clean food choices and accurate portion control have become even more important for me. It’s a lot easier to keep excess weight off your body when you’re running marathon distances and training for events, but take that ability away and you simply can not continue to consume foods on the same level and not expect to gain weight. In these past 11 months, I’ve lost a lot of muscle tone and strength due to the severity of my injuries and the absolute need for several months of rest in order to recover – but I have still been successful at maintaining a healthy weight. I’m definitely not where I want to be, or hope to be again someday, but I’m proud of my ability to read labels, plan meals, and prepare well, day in and day out. This year, my husband has even joined me in this endeavor, taking an active role in improving his own diet and health. He’s lost a significant amount of weight, no longer suffers from acid reflux, and hardly even snores anymore! We both love the way it feels to eat a primarily plant based diet with just a few servings of fish per week.
And now, the CORSET – which is kind of a funny story.
I’ve struggled with my spinal injuries so much these past 11 months that, on one particularly “bad” day, I found myself popping open the prescription bottle of painkillers left over from my previous surgeries to repair my shattered wrist. I know that this is not a longterm solution. It’s literally the equivalent of placing a bandaid on a bullet hole, and that is not how I want to live out the rest of my life. I am not one to take medications. It’s actually a really big deal for me to pop a single ibuprofen but, on this particular day, I knew that it just wouldn’t be enough. I went straight for the Schedule 2 opioid narcotics.
That was a wake-up moment for me.
I have seen way too many good people go down this road and I sure as hell do not want to be one of them! I began my search for the best neurosurgeon in the Pittsburgh area and I made the call. They listened to my story, pulled my previous medical records, and ordered diagnostic tests. They have already prefaced me for the probable need for surgery at this point and, pending the results of next week’s MRI, we will schedule an appointment to discuss my potential options. Spinal surgery is something that I am not particularly confident in or, in any way, comfortable with. I can not say that I will agree to this – but I am open to exploring the possibility of some less conventional, “experimental” treatments – like PRP or Stem Cell Therapy. Regardless, all of this information had me researching the details of surgical interventions, statistics, and outcomes. While they seem to boast a high rate of pain relief, the recovery does not seem particularly promising to me – meaning that high-impact activities, like running, are still cautioned against, and athletes who have returned to running did so about 6-months post surgery but still required spinal bracing in order to tolerate it.
Wait. Spinal bracing? Why hadn’t I thought of this?
I immediately began my search for a highly recommended back brace suitable for running. There was literally nothing in stock in any store within 100 miles of me! All of the sudden I had an epiphany – why not wear a corset? Adapt and overcome, right? This was Saturday afternoon. With less than 24 hours left before the race, I decided that I was going to test this out on race day, as an experiment. I found an old corset that I had from a previous costume party, several years ago. Not the personally fitted, cinch me up and make me look sexy kind of corset – but, rather, the wrap me up and hold me tight, spanx like, body shaping kind of corset that can be found in the lingerie section of your local KOHL’s department store.
I told Strealy about the corset as we were preparing to head downtown, early Sunday morning. I warned her that, if it was too uncomfortable or impeded my breathing, I would need to stop, take it off, and throw it away. But, as Strealy and I took off running through the first few miles of the race, I quickly realized that this was an absolutely genius idea! I felt amazing and we were running way faster than we, realistically, should have been.
We made our first stop just shy of the 3-mile mark. A small group of incredible men had set up a “hydration station” and were handing out dixie cups of beer – I.C. Light has never tasted so good!
A few site-seeing murals, high-fives and hugs from friends spectating along the course and we were off and running again!
The weather was interesting, to say the least, with an ever changing mix of light rain, heavy downpours, sunshine and rainbows, followed by thunder and lightning, periodically steamy conditions, and some light fog. We incorporated multiple walk breaks in order to stretch and reset, as Strealy is also nursing chronic pain from a previous spinal injury of her own. Just two years ago, this incredible woman could barely even walk! Yet, on this day, she was running a half marathon right by my side!
Miles 4, 5, and 6 ticked by and I was still feeling very little pain! The corset that I was wearing offered great comfort through compression and and stability, preventing any excessive leaning or twisting movements originating from my spine.
Strealy, however, was in a significant amount of pain and, by Mile 7, I was begging her to let me give her the corset. If it helped me so much for the first half of this race, perhaps it could help her suffer less in the final half? Stubbornly, she refused. Like the natural born warrior that she is, she insisted upon pushing through her own pain rather than allowing me to increase the amount of mine.
We entered Mile 8 and she became very quiet. I was a few steps ahead, pacing us forward, but in my mind, I was right there beside her. I know the “pain cave” very well and I know that nothing anyone says can or will pull you through it. You have to find your own way through. In moments like these, it’s best to simply share the silence. In quiet support, I watched her and waited as she found the strength to power through.
We entered the South Side and another locally famous mural at Mile 9 offered us a photo-op!
Mile 10 was filled with cupcakes and cold brew, jell-o shots and beer, conversations with old friends and some really rockin’ bands! This is just what we needed to find our second wind.
As we crossed the Birmingham Bridge at Mile 11, and made the left on 5th Avenue, the first touch of sadness seeped into my soul. For the first time, at Mile 12 of this particular race, I simply didn’t want it to end! As we turned onto Grant Street, with the 13th Mile marker not far ahead, we saw my husband waving and taking a video of us. A fellow runner friend, at the final turn in the course, was screaming my name. With a quick hug and a lot of encouraging words, he sent us on our way.
We picked up the pace as we headed for the Finish Line and I have never been so proud of us in all my life! We had every reason NOT to run this race. We had every reason to give it up halfway through. Considering the extent of our injuries and the severity of our struggles, not a single person would have judged us for bailing out. But that is simply not who we are!
As we held onto each other and made our way through the finisher’s chute, our emotions were rising high. Accomplishment and relief, bittersweet disbelief – but, most of all, immeasurable gratitude for each other’s friendship and shared fortitude!
A short time later, after securing our spot at a local bar for lunch, I returned to the course to cheer. Our employer had sponsored the Marathon Relay and several of our friends and team members were participating. I arrived along the 26th Mile just in time to catch sight of our 5th and final leg participant making his way towards the final turn. I called out his name and re-entered the course. He welcomed my company along his final half mile and graciously allowed me to share in his Finish Line moment.
In the past 10 years, I have run so many races. It amazes me now how, in each and every one of them, I’ve wasted so much energy stressing about my pace. Wondering if I can? Worrying that I can’t. Always pushing for more and better – as if it ever even mattered to anyone but me. In reality, all that really matters is that I simply enjoy the run itself and that I always finish whatever I start. This is where a person’s true character is revealed.
In the words of the late, great David Clark:
“The real heart of any race is not in the lead – it’s in the back of the pack where the pace may not be world-class, but it will always be fast enough to out-run the excuses that threaten to steal your hope.”– David Clark, #WeAreSuperman